Are you a victim or are you accountable? Do you wait for things to happen or do you make things happen? Your success in life, both personally and professionally, depends on whether you’re a victim hanging on to the bottom rung, or own your decisions, circumstances, and outcomes, standing (figuratively) firmly on the top rung.
Literally the best, singular piece of advice I could ever give to anyone and everyone, in both their personal and professional lives, is this:
“Don’t live your life being a victim, making excuses and blaming others. Rather, own your behaviors, actions, circumstances, and outcomes.”
I’m referring of course to the accountability ladder, which I’ve seen in many variations over the years, yet the basic concept is the same. The “Accountability Ladder” is one of the most, if not “thee” most, important and useful tools in all of organizational development.
First Things First
If you’ve achieved some level or series of successes in your personal and professional lives, chances are, you’re a person who makes things happen. In short, you’re accountable. You don’t make excuses and blame others. Rather, you accept your reality, establish goals, and are driven to get there, fully acknowledging that there may and most likely will be setbacks along the way. That’s okay. Nothing will deter you from achieving your goals.
If you haven’t achieved your dreams or desires, you need to take a long hard look in the mirror. It’s time to examine your own behaviors. Most likely, your inner core of beliefs are that of a victim. Your lack of achievement in life isn’t your fault, is it? Feeling sorry for yourself? In the habit of blaming others for your failures? Rather than harbor these feelings for the rest of your life, do yourself a favor. Have a family member or friend who’s willing to be honest with you give it to you straight. You won’t like it, but you need to hear it, especially if you want to change the direction of your career and life. A word of caution here – don’t kill the messenger.
This may end up being a bit of a pep talk, but it’s not just the fuzzy sales pitch about picking yourself up by your bootstraps and going at it again and again. People are born and raised in all kinds of socioeconomic backgrounds, from the poor and destitute to the crowd born with silver spoons in their mouths, and everyone in between. And there are success stories from every category. Do the statistics show that more successful people come from those who were raised in higher standard of living situations? Sure, yet there are plenty of successful people that grew up in abject poverty and became doctors, lawyers, engineers, and/or were successful in terms of family, community, sports, arts, and in the myriad of ways in which success is defined.
We’ve all heard the rags to riches stories, and some of the opposite ones as well, and even those who came full circle. Regardless of the statistics, you didn’t control how you were brought into this world, and you can only work with your present situation and move forward. If you continually think like a victim – making excuses, blaming others, invoking race, gender, age, and any other form of diversity – as to why you haven’t achieved your goals or success the way you defined it, I guarantee you will most likely never achieve true success. On the other hand, if you own your performance, behavior, actions, and outcomes, good or bad, and keep striving to continuously improve, your chances of success the way you define it, increase dramatically.
Let’s walk through, or climb our way as it were, up the accountability ladder together. I think it will be instructive and illustrative. There are eight rungs from top to bottom. Just type “accountability ladder” into any search engine and several versions will pop up. (By the way, I won’t share a visual here of any one of many versions of the ladder for two reasons. First, I won’t advertise for any particular company’s version, and secondly, I’d rather stay away from potential legal issues.)
At the lowest level or rung of the ladder is lack of awareness or consciousness. If this is where you are, you’re in trouble. You literally don’t even know a problem exists – whether it’s your performance, your team’s performance, or a problem with a relationship at work or home. That means that your head is somewhere else. Your priorities are screwed up. You haven’t built the capabilities and skills or acted responsibly to know what you’re supposed to do and how to do it. It will literally take a boss, either at home or work, a peer, a friend, a family member or some significant emotional event to wake you up with the proverbial two by four right between the eyes. Hopefully, this will happen sooner rather than later in both your career and personal life.
If you’re at least conscious of a problem or lack of achievement, that’s better than being unaware, but don’t pat yourself on the back just yet. You’re a long way from home Dorothy. With this mindset, nothing is ever your fault. You are defensive and you tend to blame others for your failures or your team’s failures. You blame the company – it’s systems and its culture. You blame your peers for undermining you and not being team players. You blame your boss for not being clear on his or her expectations. You blame your spouse or kids for not complying with your wishes, when maybe it’s you that’s not providing enough “give” for all the “taking” you’re doing.
I remember when I was first starting out in industry as a twenty-one-year-old, fresh out of engineering school. I didn’t understand personal goals and how important they were to the organization and to my boss. Well, after I was through explaining to him why I wasn’t achieving certain goals, and most likely wouldn’t by the end of the year, rationalizing and making excuses, he provided that significant emotional stimulus for me. It was a re-calibration of priorities, and a much-needed wake-up call for me. It meant to me at the time that I couldn’t just do the things I wanted to or liked about my job, and how I needed to pay attention to moving the department forward through meaningful contributions and improving the business.
So, do you make excuses for not getting things done or for failure to achieve goals? I’ve not only done it, but I’ve seen it now for a few decades, and with mature, seasoned leaders. It’s actually one of the worst attributes of any working professional. What leader or business owner out there wants people on their team that continuously makes excuses for not getting things done, rather than one who always figures out how to get things done? I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll get to those that get things done shortly.
Wait and Hope
Okay, we’re making progress now as we move up the ladder. We’re aware there is a problem. We’ve stopped blaming others and making excuses, and we’re actually concerned about the issue at hand and contemplating what to do about it. We’re not actually sure what to do, however, so we employ a “wait and hope” strategy. Did you ever here the phrase, “hope is not a strategy”?
Progress in society and the corporate world comes from action, not inaction. If you’re hoping your problem performer suddenly steps up and becomes accountable and delivers on results, you may be waiting a long time. And in the meantime, it’s affecting your team’s performance, which means it’s affecting your performance. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen leaders defend their team’s or an individual’s poor performance, for all kinds of reasons, and then actually lose their job because they were too weak to set a high standard, not accept excuses, and formally hold them accountable.
Congratulations! You’re now on the top half of the accountability ladder. You’re moving in the right direction. You’ve acknowledged the problem, issue, and circumstances surrounding it. The problem is real, and it’s not going away unless someone does something about it. You’re not sure that it’s you yet that has to take action, as you’re thinking about and analyzing the situation, trying to decide if it’s something you can fix or at least contribute to the fix.
I’ll never forget my first assignment as a line manager back in the early 90s. There was a leadership consultant that my company hired that was working with many of us and throughout the larger department on goal setting structure and substance, which turned out to be foundational to my development as a manager.
I can vividly recall a session we were having with me and my team, facilitated by the consultant, about an issue that needed resolution. He was teaching us how to structure our goals in a SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based) fashion, and to complete the concept, he was pressing me on what assistance I might need from others. I remember he asked me point blank, “do you need anything from anyone else outside your department to solve this problem?” I was silent for a few seconds as I thought it through, and then responded, “no.” In that moment, I came to the realization that I had much more responsibility and accountability, and the wherewithal within me and my team to solve organizational problems. It was an important step in the development of my own accountability maturity.
Here we go! Ownership is a beautiful thing. When you develop an ownership mindset, your energy level expands significantly. It’s like when you are getting ready to go on vacation. You literally plow through your inbox, all the papers on your desk, all of your emails, and any projects that are outstanding. You follow up with people, provide a comprehensive report to your boss, and go on vacation with that extra boost of endorphin release and thrill of accomplishment. This is undoubtedly the most productive period you have during the entire year, the two-week pre-vacation period.
When you own the issue or problem, that means you believe it’s not only your responsibility to fix it, but you’re determined and committed to do anything and everything necessary to resolve it. In fact, you’ll let nothing stand in your way. You won’t take “no” for an answer from anyone. You blow off all the naysayers that say, “that’ll never work”. You take special pride in telling those that say, “you can’t do that” or the infamous, “that’s not the way things are done around here”, “who the Hell says I can’t, you?! And just imagine if everyone had this level of ownership for organizational problems. Corporate savings would be in the 100s of billions of dollars.
Now that you own the problem, how are you going to fix it? Can you do it alone? Do you need your team? Do you need help from your peers or peer organizations? Do you need your boss to provide resources or clear the path of any obstacles? Do you need external assistance, maybe support from a vendor or regulatory body? Is this a big issue that will take a cross-functional team months to work towards resolution or does it only require a “HIT” team that can generate solutions in a couple of meetings by utilizing the “problem solving model”, lean and/or six sigma tools, in a structured, focused setting with an experienced facilitator?
I know there are a lot of questions to answer here, but I can tell you that it’s been my experience that leaders and teams many times make missteps early on. The problem is not defined correctly, therefore, the data analysis is incorrect and ineffective solutions are then generated. And when does this show up? Typically, the team reports out to the boss’ boss or a larger group at some point and makes recommendations. When everyone in the room is looking at each other with incredulity at the idea of approving the recommendations, then we know it’s basically, “Houston – we have a problem”.
Now this is somewhat tangential to the topic and speaks to process and leadership and the lack thereof. The effective leader checks in with the team frequently and makes sure the problem is defined accurately early on, and reviews progress with their boss so there are no surprises. The experienced, mature leader employs proven solutions, but also pushes the team to develop new, innovative solutions that will finally solve the problem through new processes so there is no slippage moving forward.
Make it Happen
I love this statement. The most successful people “make it happen”. They don’t wait for things to happen. This is like reaching the “self-actualization” stage of Maslow’s hierarchy. This speaks to a concept I’ve mentioned previously that applies perfectly here. It’s critical that as a manager and leader, you are proactive, rather than reactive. Always be on the balls of your feet, not on your heels. In business, issues and problems will be continually thrown at you, and without a proactive plan and strategy, all you’ll be doing is reacting and putting out fires. Don’t get me wrong – the fires need to be put out. When they’re no longer burning, pursue a leadership agenda of continuous improvement that will both prevent some of the issues from ever arising again, as well as better prepare you to address the issue that does arise periodically. You need to always be leading out front, driving the issues and business forward.
Now if for some reason things seem to be going smoothly, don’t be fooled. In large organizations and I’m guessing even in smaller ones, there are always issues, whether they appear out in the open or are hiding under layers of management or suppressed by the culture. Your job as an engaged, effective leader is to seek out and find the issues and uncover what may be impacting the business or operation negatively.
Go talk to people, make yourself seen and heard in the business, and listen to what your employees are telling you. And if they are quiet, it’s your job to be inquisitive and get them to talk about how things really get done. If you don’t, you’re going to be surprised one day with a big bad event. And then when you start to dig into the problem that surfaced or investigate the event that occurred, you will find that the issue had always been there and was just lurking within the culture or just under the surface and invisible to you.
I’ll leave you with a quick, personal story. I interviewed for a job recently, the top job in an organization, competing against one other finalist. I was unsuccessful. Did it sting? You bet it did. That was about a week ago. Am I over it? You bet I am. For some reason or reasons, it simply wasn’t meant to be. Even though I thought and was told by the hiring manager that I performed very well and that it was a very difficult decision, it still hurts.
Now the victim in me made excuses when I first heard the news. I didn’t own my own behavior and performance. But as the first couple of days passed, I began to settle into self-reflection. Maybe there was something in my experience that was lacking. Maybe there was something in my Clifton Strengths self-assessment they didn’t like. Maybe the successful candidate simply had a better final interview. I sent the hiring manager and the other final interviewer, along with the recruiter, a thank you note, sharing my appreciation for considering me as a candidate and wishing all of them and the successful candidate and their organization, all the best in the future.
I then began to reflect on what I will do moving forward. What did I learn from the process? The facts are, I sharpened my saw in terms of interviewing and preparation. I re-familiarized myself with the most important issues in my industry.
I put on a suit for the first time in a year and a half, one that I hadn’t worn in a long time. It fit because I’m twenty pounds lighter than I was eighteen months ago, having made and enacted important life decisions about diet and exercise. I met some great people, visited some new as well as familiar geographic stomping grounds, and re-kindled some relationships with references that I called on for support. It all felt really good.
Bottom line – I was sought out, considered for, and provided an opportunity for a great job in my industry, and I’m grateful for all of it. I’m not bitter or resentful. I’ve chosen not to be a victim, but to own my performance, behavior, and outcome. I guarantee I’ll up my game hereon in.
Last but not least
We can all be victims at times – every single one of us. When we don’t get the job or promotion, when we don’t pass the test, when we lose the debate, when we get beat by the competition – it stings. Your progress in your career and life is largely dependent on whether it’s a temporary, fleeting or short-lived moment of excuses and rationalizations, or a never-ending wallowing in a sea of despair about how you’ve been wronged.
Take a look at some of the more successful people throughout society, whether in business, arts, music, sports, entertainment, politics, religion, you name it. Steve Jobs, Andrea Bocelli, Denzel Washington, Harrison Ford, Alex Smith – the quarterback who just came back from a supposed career-ending injury requiring a multi-year rehab and 17 surgeries, Jennifer Lopez, Oprah Winfrey, Ronald Reagan, John Maxwell or Rick Warren – do you think any of them live or lived their life as a victim? All of them and countless others struggled and had significant setbacks during their lives. No doubt when experiencing disappointment or failure, I’m sure there were moments of “why me”? And after they were done feeling sorry for themselves, I’m sure they quickly picked themselves up and said, “I’ll just work that much harder to reach my goals”.
Regardless of whether they were treated fairly, suffered discrimination, or were the recipient of bad timing and a host of other factors that were detrimental to their progress, successful people are accountable. They own their behaviors, actions, mindset, and results – good or bad. They are learners and strivers. They are driven to achieve. The best leaders and the most successful people don’t wait for things to happen. They make things happen.
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